Returning to the Scene of the Crime: Uses of Trial Dossiers on Consensual Male Homosexuality for Urban Research, with Examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia
- GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies
- Duke University Press
- Volume 10, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 77-110
- View Citation
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10.1 (2003) 77-110
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Returning to the Scene of the Crime
Uses of Trial Dossiers on Consensual Male Homosexuality for Urban Research, with Examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia
Gordon Brent Ingram
The transcripts of hearings and trials for consensual homosexuality are a key source for lesbian and gay histories. While trial dossiers are rich troves for social narratives, the documents they contain often include ambiguous and contradictory details. Curiously, discussions on methods of reading and analyzing such sources are rare in studies on sexual minorities. Although trial dossiers can also tell us much about the formation of cities and states, they have been underused in environmental histories and other urban research. The use of such sources to reconstruct maps of shifting homoerotic social spaces, such as gay enclaves and sites of important events, remains underdeveloped, except perhaps in the area of historical preservation. This essay explores ways that trial dossiers can be assessed for applied scholarship and contemporary activism. By returning to the scene of these so-called crimes, and to the repressive activities of police and courts that in the same locations today would be often considered criminal, we can find new ways to understand past and present urban economies of sexualities. I sketch an approach to urban research that explores trial dossiers for policy development, planning, design, and management for physical, social, economic, and cultural aspects of inhabited spaces on various scales, from local sites to metropolitan regions.
The use of trial dossiers in urban research, particularly those in which the state identifies defendants as members of stigmatized and outlawed groups, is problematic. The details presented by either side may be purposefully untrue and, [End Page 77] if so, can be considered as competing fictions. But whatever their truth status, the written narratives in a trial dossier are relevant to a range of fields, from history to cultural studies to political economy to geography to urban studies. Trial dossiers examined in terms of urban space over time and drawn on as a basis for activist proposals yield a host of theoretical and methodological questions. At this point in the development of the scholarship on sexual minorities, I argue for multiple readings of trial dossiers—for different, more clearly specified agendas concerning their use. One mark of the success of early sexual-minority social histories—whether global and national or local and focused on aspects of the "specificity of gay life"—is that they have raised new questions that are now being asked.1 One line of inquiry centers on questions about the formation of urban life and space.2 In other words, how have homosexuality and homophobia "built" the cities in which we live? Over the last four decades this field has had links to attempts to forge more complete understandings of and defense strategies for public sex. Such examinations of populations, bodies, desires, sites, designed space, political economies, and even queer impacts can lead to more nuanced frameworks, particularly ones intolerant of homophobia and other social inequities, for the planning, design, and management of urban space.
Like the sources with which I work in this essay, my findings are historically and geographically specific, only partly useful for understanding other parts of North America or even the British Empire. Unlike some prominent historians of modern male homosexuality, I do not argue that the information from these trial dossiers is of universal importance to the making of the twentieth-century gay male world. The towns of Victoria and Vancouver, where nearly all of the supposed crimes took place, were among the few relatively stable settlements in British Columbia at the time; crisis-ridden Indian villages and temporary company towns were more typical. Moreover, a plethora of demographic, legal, institutional, and cultural factors made the political economy of sexuality in urbanizing British Columbia distinctive from that of Alberta and parts farther east in Canada, not to mention adjacent...